The Romance and Bravery of the Mail

By James Fallows

Continuing the "who's to blame for no mail on Saturday" discussion, previously here and here, we have these new entries from readers.

Heroes of the Anthrax Age. From a reader who, like me, was once on the postal payroll:

I, too, have worked at USPS and am now an executive in a Fortune 50 company.  USPS had a speedy, efficient structure compared to the corporate bureaucracy I now experience.  It's funny, the reactions I receive when I say I once worked at USPS.  Most frequently, I receive condolences.  I quickly object to that sentiment.  Some of the smartest, most hardworking people I have ever met work for USPS in both management and craft jobs.
 
Congress is the real villain here, but it's not surprising.  A perfect example is the anthrax-crisis of 2001.  In the midst of those terrible days when no one knew where or  when the next deadly letter would arrive, the Congress of the United States ran out of DC for weeks.  Postal workers came to work every day.  Within 90 days of the crisis, USPS engineers were testing a new processing machine that would detect bio-hazards in the mailstream and wouldn't disburse deadly contaminents into the air at postal facilities every time the machine was cleaned.  Four months later, USPS began delivering these new machines to processing centers.

The Vol de Nuit factor. Literary allusions from a reader:

I don't have any original thoughts of my own to add to the discussion about the postal service except to add that when it comes to romance and literary inspiration, post office beats electronic hands down.  Just two piece of evidence will suffice:
 
(1)     W.H. Auden's poem for the British post office in the 1930s, "Night Mail". [JF note: seriously, you won't regret clicking on the video below.]
 


(2)     Antoine de Saint-Exupery's novels Courrier Sud (Southern Mail) and Night Flight about the dangers of delivering the air mail in the 1930s...which adds the romance of flight as well.
 
If anyone has written a great poem or novel about sending an email or text message...let me know.

The Sneakernet Factor. Thanks to many readers who sent links to yet another great Randall Munroe xkcd entry, this one about the relative throughput capacities of the internet and physical transport systems.

'Superior in almost every way that matters.' A reader whose business depends on both virtual and physical networks writes:

I work at a small eCommerce company in Redlands, California and know from experience that the federal mail is superior to private couriers in almost every way that matters. They offer the best product at the best rate nine times out of ten. Compromising this service would be devastating to domestic commerce - particularly during the all-important Christmas season/fourth quarter....

As a Constitutionally mandated service aren't talks of why we need the post office just a little bit moot or at the least self-serving (said with all respect) punditry? We're not even talking about an amendment. The original document tells Congress to make post offices and post roads. So isn't this more of a question of: do we have a good post system or a crappy one?

The security factor. A reader makes this basic point:

One great feature of "snail mail"..... privacy!!!   No matter  how much or what is done on computers, safety and privacy are not guaranteed!!.

Right -- security can't be guaranteed in either medium. But it certainly is quicker, faster, easier, and more insidious to follow an electronic rather than a physical "paper trail."

The road not taken. A reader looks back:

I've long thought that the great opportunity for the USPS was to be the primary progenitor of the world-wide-web in the US.  That is to say, the primary ISP and Email service provider; the roles now fulfilled by Comcast, Verizon, and Google.  In the mid 90's, when home web access was all dial-up, the post office could have been as instrumental in bringing local web access to rural America as they did with postal access.  And of course then, very few envisioned cloud storage / transfer services.   USPS could have offered (at a time when no others were in the homeowner / retail space): Security, encryption, delivery confirmation, and SPAM / virus protection.  The existing distributed nature of the USPS would have been perfect in terms of support and transition from 'snail' to electronic media. 

This goes against the notion of smaller less intrusive government, but the alternative notions of real web neutrality and widely available web access would have been the kinds of things that would have helped America in the global technology challenges.  (Of course there would have been the prickly concern over how to handle the enormous amounts of porn...).  And finally, since 9/11 & Google, we must assume that all email and web traffic is subject to monitoring and recording; so they could have had a head start on all that. 

To me, this all goes along with the already deep levels of integration and regulatory relationships between the US Government and Broadcasters, Telecoms, and other public forms of media.  Quite possibly the USPS would not have been a direct service provider but, rather, a facilitator, regulator, and equalizer to ensure all America had access to reasonable service levels at reasonable cost and that various public services were integrated into the web early on.

Too late now, I suppose.  I wonder (and doubt) if Al Gore would have had the vision to pursue this approach had he been elected in 2000. 

That's enough for now. Maybe this crisis will have the silver-lining effect of nudging people away from the reflexive denigration of postal employees, postal efficiency, and "snail mail." Not sure what we can do about "going postal," though.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/02/the-romance-and-bravery-of-the-mail/273025/